Chalk one up for Social Media, the megaphone of the world’s second superpower, Public Opinion. Over the weekend, Nestle conceded to worldwide demand that they stop using palm oil from rainforest destruction in their products.
Our flagship tactic in this campaign was a parody of a Kit Kat ad, which Nestlé, in what in public relations circles is known as a “Fuck ME, how could you be that stupid?” move, attempted to ban from the internet. Which virtually guaranteed that “the internet” would strike back and insist that it be seen. (It finds censorship distasteful, this Internet Thing…) They created a cause celeb out of a brand attack, and fuelled the fire of their own roasting.
They fanned those fires by a hamfisted handling of the reaction on their Facebook page, where people flocked to protest the clearing of Indonesian rainforest to plant palm trees, or to cry foul over censorship of Greenpeace, or to, frankly, join in the fun of watching a public relations bonfire. Nestlé’s official voice came across as dictatorial, condescending, and clueless. Some posters were heckled by the Nestle administrators, some even found the only answer they got to their appeal to the company’s conscience was advice on improving their spelling.
There was something very deep at work here. Nestlé, no stranger to public criticism, appeared to have no experience in handling it. They profoundly failed to listen to their customers. They underestimated the brand damage that could be inflicted upon them. They misjudged the speed at which a social media attack can move.
They thought that an old model was at work here, in which a corporation can manufacture truth, create a demand for it, and then sell it to people, or even force it down their throats. That paradigm is still strong (witness what the oil and coal interests have done by funding and fuelling the climate change denyosphere) but the Kit Kat campaign is a great example of how it can be challenged.
Regular readers will remember that I put together a provocative video paraodying Kit Kat’s initial reaction, based on the Hitler Downfall meme. I pulled it within 24 hours, though, when I witnessed the misunderstanding of a couple people who were unfamiliar with the meme. They read a literal accusation of Nazi-ism or Nazi-style evil into it, not realising that the clip had become, within its intended audience of the subculture which lives and works in the Social Media haunts, a cultural emblem of any situation which provokes an over-the-top response. (For an exhaustive discussion of this meme as subcultural metaphor, and even why it’s funny, see Alex Leavitt’s thoughtful piece here.) As negotiations with Nestléat that moment were, let’s say, tense, I didn’t want to risk the misunderstanding of the top brass there – who had already demonstrated they were not fellow-travellers in the social media subculture. But I did promise a couple enthusiastic folks that I’d reintroduce it once the campaign was won.
Ironically, the meme itself has now effectively been shut down by YouTube content ID block as a result of a copyright claim from the producer of Der Untergang, the source for the original clip, despite the fact that all of the instances I’ve seen to date would almost certainly pass the tests of Fair Use. The copy below is NOT hosted by YouTube, thank you very much.
I’m reposting it as a reminder to others who might find themselves at the pointy end of a social media attack, because the moral of this story is really simple. If your audience/customer base/supporters have a bone to pick with you about your sustainability, your ethics, or the role you play in the ongoing struggle to make this world a better place, deal with the substance of that issue. Respond to it, engage with it. Listen to that voice. Never, ever, try to silence it.
(This video may disappear if someone disagrees that it constitutes Fair Use. If you want to download a zipped local copy of this flash version you can do so here.)